Black Men Walking is a soulful, empowering tale of three men and a woman discovering themselves on a long walk in the Peak District, told here in a co-production from the Royal Court, the Manchester Royal Exchange, and Eclipse Theatre Company. The play, written by Yorkshire-based rapper and theatremaker Testament, makes inventive use of spoken word poetry, beat-boxing and singing, alongside naturalistic dialogue.
With its repetitive refrain “We walk”, this sung poetry perfectly complements the play’s rich metaphor of walking – as a symbol for action, for refusing to give up in the face of oppression, and for staking one’s right to exist in this world. But the act of walking is equally imbued with the pain and struggle associated with being black and British, in both the world in general, but particularly in Yorkshire.
For most of the play, we see the wandering trio of blokes – Barnsley-based doctor Matthew (Trevor Laird), hardy Sheffield senior Thomas (Tyrone Huggins), and Ghanaian Trekkie Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) – navigate the rugged landscape of the Peak District, a pursuit they share every first Saturday of the month. In this carved out time and space, they are free to bond over stories of microaggression at work, the actions and reactions of strangers and loved ones, and outright racist episodes played out on football fields.
But the real Man of the Match – nay, Woman of the Match – is Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange), a young MC who shares half their journey in more than one sense of the word. Director Dawn Walton’s decision to have Ayeesha appear in initial scenes as an ancient African woman that only Thomas can see is ingenious, showing us the shared history of these characters. This element of mysticism and ethereality heightens Testament’s poetry, which references a fourth-century African princess, among other ancestors.
Ayeesha, when she reappears as a young black woman born and bred in Sheffield, is both familiar and unfamiliar to the men. She is the millennial cipher they initially discount as entitled and ignorant of the sacrifices the older generation have made for them. But she shakes up their world, as a storm-cloud gradually gathers, reminding them that being a black woman makes her doubly disadvantaged.
The ensemble is tight, and Sebuyange’s Ayeesha is a breath of fresh air as she spits rhymes and speaks truth about the extant racism that plays out in KFCs and department stores across the country. Similar to the men’s run-ins with hooliganism in the footballing world, Ayeesha’s experiences are ugly and crass. She is set apart from the men, though, who can all afford to splurge on Millet hiking gear and to spend time walking in the wilderness.
The trio soon realises the importance of understanding and co-opting the next generation – a sly Star Trek reference – as allies in their struggle, and following a near-death experience, all four emerge from their adventure with a renewed sense of life. It is a classic hero’s journey that feels familiar yet unfamiliar, just as the shared experiences of the characters that, while not quite the same, are all equally valid.
This may be a story of black men walking, but it is made richer by Ayeesha, who walks her own path – the path of a black woman not just living, but thriving in modern Britain.
Black Men Walking is at the Royal Court until April 7th. For more details, click here.